Hal Ashby's Being There ends on a curious note, but it doesn't stop there. It's a subtle satire wrapped in quiet comedy, rarely laugh-out-loud funny but highly entertaining in its understated manner. Inspired by Jerzy Kosinski's 1971 novel (not "based on", as they're hardly the same story), Ashby's film represents one of the highest points in the director's short but brilliant career. Never mind that it was his last successful film after a run that included The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory, (1976) and Coming Home (1978); for obvious reasons, Being There feels like more of a question mark than an exclamation point.
Peter Sellers---who died less than a year after this film's release---stars as "Chance", a TV-addicted gardener who lives at the Washington, D.C. home of an extremely wealthy man. After his employer's death, simple-minded Chance is forced to leave and, having never strayed from the grounds before, rightly finds it difficult to adjust to his brand new life. Or does he? After an unexpected injury, Chance---whose name is misheard as "Chauncy Gardiner"---is taken care of by wealthy businessman and Presidential adviser Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), his younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine), and Ben's personal doctor (Richard A. Dysart). Like his misunderstood name, "Chauncy" is immediately perceived by his hosts as an intense, philosophical, and highly intelligent man, whose direct and simple statements stand in direct contrast to their own. Soon enough, he's meeting with the President himself (Jack Warden), making TV appearances, and mystifying reporters: Chauncy is, after all, a man with no record or confirmed identity. But with so many high-ranking individuals vouching for his character, who dares to argue?
Working perfectly well as a straightforward comedy or subtle satire, Being There is the kind of film that feels highly relevant while still being firmly rooted in its era. It's filled with great performances, too: Sellers turns in one of the best in his long and illustrious career---he reportedly stayed in character during the entire production, even during off-hours---while the supporting turns by Douglas and MacLaine aren't far behind. Ashby's direction has arguably never been better...not to mention the contributions of screenwriter Robert C. Jones, co-writer of Coming Home and editor on many of the director's films; Jones' script replaced an early rejected version penned by author Jerzy Kosinski that, according to Ashby, strayed extremely far from his own book. In a strange twist of fate, Kosinski was credited as sole screenwriter by the Writer's Guild and, for decades, Jones' name was swept under the rug.
So as it turns out, truth is stranger as fiction: Being There, a tale based on personal loss, confusion, and mistaken identity, mirrors certain parts of its own production. So too does the film's curious ending (that water-walk, not "the Rafael outtake"), given Sellers' unfortunate fate less than a year later. Yet, even without the added mystique, Being There is a near-masterpiece from one of America's most underappreciated directors. Criterion's new Blu-ray package gives it a second life after Warner Bros.' 2009 disc, adding a brand new 4K-sourced transfer (supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) and several new and vintage extras that clear up some of the fog.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (unlike Warner Bros.' Blu-ray and DVD editions from 2009, which slightly cropped the sides at 1.78:1), Being There looks much stronger and more stable than both earlier releases. This 1080p image is the result of a brand new 4K transfer supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and everything about these visuals is more vibrant and refined overall. Black levels are extremely solid, image detail and textures are quite good, and the film's light to moderate grain structure is represented perfectly well from start to finish, which results in an extremely natural, clean, and crisp appearance; in comparison, the Warner disc looks a little flat and almost waxy. No obvious digital imperfections or heavy manipulation (compression artifacts, excessive noise reduction, etc.) could be spotted along the way, either. A handful of "TV footage" close-ups exhibited mild interlacing issues, but this may very well be a source material issue. I simply can't imagine Being There looking much better on home video than it does here, so fans should be enormously pleased with Criterion's efforts.
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There's less to say about the PCM 1.0 track aside from that it's perfectly adequate and sounds just as expected for a film from the late 1970s. Dialogue, sporadic music cues, and background effects are relatively crisp and clear without fighting for attention; it can't help but feel a little thin overall, but the overall experience manages to showcase a few moments of depth at times. Overall, this lossless mono presentation seems true to the source material and purists will enjoy the lack of surround gimmickry. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature.
As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is locked for Region A players; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" keepcase and includes eye-catching, colorful artwork based on the original poster. The fold-out Insert includes tech specs, cast/crew lists, and an essay by film critic Mark Harris.
Several exclusive supplements are included; sadly no audio commentary, but what's here in a fine mixture of new and vintage content. First up is a mid-length Making-of Documentary (48 minutes) featuring producer Andrew Braunsberg, screenwriter Robert C. Jones, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and editor Don Zimmerman. Given the untimely passing of so many cast and crew members since 1979 (Sellers, Ashby, and Kosinski all died in their mid to late 50s), it's great to get first-hand participation from these four gentlemen. Topics of discussion include Jerzy Kosinksi's novel and early contributions to the script, Hal Ashby's direction and earlier projects, the editing process, shooting the film, and more. They also aren't shy to talk about some of the friction between crew members and other less desirable moments, which makes this far more interesting than your usual back-patting puff piece.
We also get a few older goodies, mostly promoting the film during or after its original release. They lead off with a collection of 1980 AFI Seminar Audio Excerpts featuring director Hal Ashby (33 minutes), in which the director fields a number of questions about the cast, themes in the film, stories from the set, working on the script with Robert Jones, and more. Author Jerzy Kosinksi also appears in a 1979 episode of "The Dick Cavett Show" (20 minutes) and speaks about his childhood---including a seven-year period where he remained purposely mute---as well as psychology, speaking multiple languages, his other books, living in America, and other subjects. Likewise, we get to see Peter Sellers in two 1980 clips from NBC's "Today" with Gene Shalit (11 minutes) and "The Don Lane Show" (12 minutes), just a few short months before his untimely death. Also, there's a short Promo Reel (3 minutes) featuring Sellers and Ashby riffing off one another, plus a collection of TV Spots (2 minutes total).
Finally, several extras have been carried over from Warner Bros.' 2009 Blu-ray, including two Deleted Scenes, a short Gag Reel, and the film's Theatrical Trailer. But not all of them: a 15-minute retrospective featurette ("Memories From Being There", featuring Melvyn Douglas' granddaughter Ileana) is missing in action, although the new featurette more than makes up for it. As with other Criterion discs, no optional subtitles are included during these extras.
A professional highlight for director Hal Ashby and star Peter Sellers (and terribly poignant, as their careers basically ended for different reasons after this), 1979's Being There remains relevant and entertaining almost 40 years later. Featuring no shortage of great performances, a rock-solid script by Robert C. Jones, and exceptional cinematography by
Caleb Deschanel, it's a true "total package" productions that, much like its central character, can't help but feel forgotten because of how understated it appears. Nonetheless, Criterion's new Blu-ray edition heaps well-deserved praise on the film including a sparkling new 4K-sourced transfer and a respectable amount of new and vintage extras (some featuring Sellers just months before his untimely death). Easily the film's most definitive package to date, Criterion's Blu-ray of Being There comes Highly Recommended to fans and newcomers alike.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.